Naso: On blessing Israel, being gracious to others


Numbers 4:21-7:89

Judges 13:2-25

As we celebrate the 50th year of the restoration of the state of Israel, I feel a great desire to bless Israel. This home and birthplace of our people, reclaimed at a moment of our deepest despair, has provided a place for us to flourish and grow.

Israel has developed from a small, beleaguered, impoverished enterprise, proclaimed as a doubtful gamble, into a thriving country. A moment ago, when our enemies sought to kill Jews, they did so with impunity. When Jews sought to escape from these enemies, no country had to accept us. Governments decided, in a cool and deliberate fashion, whether to tolerate any desperate children fleeing from their eager murderers, or whether not to. Now, wherever our enemies rise up against us, at least one country wants us.

But it demeans Israel to think of it only as a place of refuge. Our people, home-born or coming as immigrants and refugees, have built a distinctive society. In Israel, our ancestral language functions again, serving as a daily means of communication. In Israel, thousands of scholars master the most advanced of sciences, and thousands of students study our ancient Torah.

All this has been accomplished in the face of unrestrained opposition, without a moment of anything that resembles peace. Truly Israel deserves our blessing.

But I wonder how we should bless Israel.

Perhaps we can take our cue from the Priestly Blessing. In the second sentence of the Priestly Blessing, Aaron and his sons must bless the Jewish people by saying: "May the Lord shine his face on you, and be gracious to you" (Numbers 6:25). Apparently the children of Israel always need this blessing. But what does it mean? The words seem so elusive, and none more elusive than this one: vehunecha, in Hebrew, means something like "…and be gracious to you."

I know the word "gracious"; I have used it plenty of times. But if you ask me what, exactly, it means, I think I would have to go look for an English dictionary. Looking at the Hebrew original, in this case, does not neatly solve the puzzle, since it also seems baffling. A good way to pin it down would be to look up every other use of the root in the Bible.

For example, the biblical expression "find favor in his eyes" uses a noun from the same root as the verb "be gracious." So "Noah found favor in God's eyes" (Gen. 6:8); God, as it were, approved of Noah.

"Esther found favor in the eyes of all who saw her" (Esther 2:15); people wished her well, wanted her to succeed. The usage suggests that some winsome quality, call it grace or favor, induces others to feel positively about a person. One early rabbi, cited in the Yalkut Shimoni (compiled by Rabbi Shimon of Frankfort in the 1200s) explains "and be gracious to you" in the light of this usage. The sons of Aaron bless each of the children of Israel by wishing that God "be gracious" to them, that is, give them the precious quality of attracting good wishes from other people.

Rabbi Shimon compiles several other possible definitions in his entry on "and be gracious to you" each supported by a relevant biblical quotation. Another, my current favorite, suggests that "and be gracious to you" means, "May he give you the intelligence to be gracious one to another, and loving one to another, as it says, `and give you love.'" (Deut. 13:18).

Let that serve as my blessing for the citizens of the restored state of Israel: May God grant favor to you in the eyes of the creatures, so that others look on you with kindness. May God grant you the intelligence to be gracious to one another, and loving one to another, so that you look on each other with kindness.

May God grant us the intelligence to look on Israel with favor.